The women’s distance races in Eugene were fantastic. The level of American middle and long distance runners has never been higher. In his final piece for the Olympic Trials, David Hunter wrote this piece about the 5000 meter women’s final.
July 10th, 2016
At the Olympic Trials, you can witness a myriad of emotions as track & field combatants pass through the mixed zone. From jubilation to despair – and every emotion in between – you will see it all as animated, joyful athletes celebrate achieving their childhood dream next to despondent fellow competitors whose life’s ambition has slipped away.
Emotions among those who actually make the Olympic team can vary as well. For example, even though he made the team, Nike’s Donn Cabral – whose 3rd place finish in the men’s 3000 meter steeplechase will send him to the Games for the second time – was harshly self-critical immediately after his race, while first-time Olympian David Verburg was absolutely ecstatic after his 3rd place finish in the men’s 400 meters ensured he would be competing in Rio.
On final day of these Trials, 16 women swayed nervously on the track just before the start of the women’s 5000 meter final – no doubt wondering what their emotions would be less than 20 minutes hence. As the race got underway under cool and cloudy conditions, American record holder Molly Huddle – victorious in the 10,000 meter race at these Trials – jumped quickly to the front as she did in the longer race 8 days earlier. At her elbow was 10K runner-up Emily Infeld. Immediately behind were two side-by-side pairs: ’12 5000m Olympian Kim Conley and young professional Shelby Houlihan and then Jordan Hasay and Abbey D’Agostino. Nicole Tully was tucked in at 7th to round out the early leaders.
Bunched racing can often lead to disaster – which happened when a clipped Tully went sprawling just before 8 laps to go. Dazed, she lingered on the track momentarily before gamely popping up to see if she could work her way back to the pack. Unable to reconnect despite her valiant efforts, the NYAC athlete – visibly disappointed – walked off the track three laps later.
As Huddle and Infeld continued to turn up the heat – 3K’s split in 9:14 – the lead pack was down to 9 athletes with a mile remaining. Two laps later, Huddle led alone while Infeld, Conley, Houlihan, and Katie Mackey struggled to hold on with Murielle Hall dropping off. At the bell, the American record holder down-shifted and simply ran away from the field – covering the final circuit in 63.23 to complete the last kilometer in 2:59.6 and cross the line in 15:05.01. Houlihan closed hard – actually gaining on the winner down the homestretch – as the Bowerman Track Club athlete finished second in 15:06.14. New Balance’s Conley – also strong over the final lap – crossed next in 15:10.62 to secure her second 5000 meter Olympic team berth. Infeld [15:13.87] grabbed 4th as she held off a game but ragged D’Agostino [15:14.04] on the homestretch.
After completing her Trials distance double, Huddle was composed and all business in the mixed zone. “It was definitely a windup,” said Huddle calmly in describing her inexorable pace progression over the final 3 laps. “My legs were a little tired from just the racing this week. So I just wanted to wind it up and take the kick out of those 1500 girls,” revealed the poised professional. “I know Shelby [Houlihan], Nicole [Tully], and Katie [Mackey] are really quick at the end.” Paired next to Infeld most of the race, Huddle disclosed there was no shared strategy between them. “I didn’t talk with her,” said Huddle who is planning on making her marathon debut in New York in early November. “But I knew we were both trying to do the same thing. I think she was trying to help Shelby a bit. So I felt better running next to her than trying to go in front of her just because psychologically it helps to have someone with you, I think. That’s just what I stuck with even though it adds a bit of distance to the race. I just prefer that.” Huddle knew what she had to do to win the race. “I just feel like I had to make it hurt the last K,” the now 4-time national 5000 meter champion explained. “As long as I could get 70’s and under the last K, I knew that it would hurt and take the kick out of some of those girls.”
Huddle – a 7-time USA road champion – affirmed speculation that despite her 5K Trials victory she will indeed bypass the Olympic 5000. “I’m 99 percent sure,” she confirmed. “I’ll think about it maybe one more day. But she is “almost positive” she will run only the 10,000 meters in Rio.
In contrast to the winner, second place Shelby Houlihan couldn’t stop smiling. “I am so emotional. It’s just amazing,” gushed the runner-up, who knew her fearsome kick would be a race-ending asset. “I knew if I was in it with a lap to go, I have a great kick and I knew I had a lot left. So it’s just trying to squeeze it down and drop everyone as best I could,” explained the former Arizona State Sun Devil. Behind only Huddle and clear of the rest of the field, Houlihan nonetheless powered through the final circuit in 63.89. “Actually, last year at nationals I thought I was going to win and I didn’t win,” reminded the bejeweled Houlihan referring to her loss at the line to Mississippi State’s Rianwedd Price in the NCAA championships. “So I was not taking that for granted. I was going to run through the line and I was not going to let that happen again. Lesson learned!”
The new Olympian credits her move to Portland and her Bowerman Track Club teammates for taking her to this new elevated level of performance. “It is amazing to have teammates push me every day. It’s something I’ve never had before. Even now, it puts me above and beyond where I’ve been before. The workouts are more intense – everything that was missing from me. So I’m really happy.”
Third placer Kim Conley – now a two-time Olympian – displayed yet another emotional reaction to making the team: redemption. “It feels great,” declared a beaming Conley on gaining the berth on Team USA after a freakish shoe incident scuttled her chances in the 10,000 eight days earlier. “I feel energized. And I feel triumphant that I was able to pull it through for third. It’s been a long eight days.”
Conley’s plan was to follow Huddle’s lead. “I definitely suspected Molly would keep it honest because she is such a strong runner. And I know she doesn’t leave it all to a kick – especially with the runners that were coming from a 1500 background in this race. And I was just trying to hang on to her as long as I possibly could.” Known for her late race strength, Conley went to the whip late in the final. “I did not want it to come down to a 400 meter race. The way my workouts and some of my races have been this season, I thought I could have a good last 800 to 1000 meters. So I was really just trying to use my strength over the final 1000 meters.” Clear of competition behind her over the final lap, Conley denied she knew she had the final Olympic spot in her back pocket. “No, I didn’t know. I mean you’re not looking back at that point.” She admitted to anxiety throughout the contest. “I really, really wanted to at least finish in the top three. Even though I knew that Molly probably wasn’t going to compete at 5000 [at Rio.], I still wanted to take that victory lap. I was nervous about anyone. I know there were a lot of kickers in the race. So I knew that anyone could come up in the moment. So I was really fighting for that top three finish.”
Conley outlined how making the team this year in the 5000 compared with her identical accomplishment in 2012. “Four years ago, I had nothing to lose in this meet at all. And it was just a huge element of surprise,” noted Conley who nailed an exhausted Julia Lucas right at the line four years ago to swipe the final Olympic spot. “This meet, I definitely put a little bit more pressure on myself because I really, really wanted to get back on the Olympic stage. It was more elite this time. And definitely because of what happened in the 10,000 [Her heel slid out of her shoe when she got clipped.] I was going to try [my hardest to make the team.]
Three accomplished athletes with differing emotional reactions to their achieved Olympian status are heading to Rio with a common goal: to perform at the best of their ability in the 5000 meter run. Dave Hunter